The Intercultural Dialogue Institute (IDI) welcomed Mahayana Buddhist Zenji Acharya to an intimate gathering at its GTA headquarters September 17, 2014. Zenji, dressed not in a monk’s orange garb but in black trousers, a dress shirt and a suit jacket accompanied by ancient malas, his black shoulder length hair pulled back into a wavy pony tail, applauded IDI for hosting yet another event offering the opportunity for people of different backgrounds and religious beliefs to learn about Buddhism through open dialogue and inquiry.
Zenji, his slight frame against a backdrop of rare Mahayana Buddhist artwork, his brown eyes alive with the passion of his forefathers, seeks to make Buddhism relatable to a modern world. His Buddhist Brahmin lineage harkens to Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, Nagarjuna, the founder of the “Middle Way” School of Mahayana, Vasubandhu and the founders of Chinese Buddhism, Paramartha and Kumarajiva among others. His vision includes bringing back the Buddhism of his ancestors by returning to scripture and the fundamental values embedded in the sutras. He aims to dispel popular myths and misinterpretations about Buddhism by returning to the truth found in scripture and archaeology and by providing citations from the Buddhist discourses (sutras) focussing on the Lotus and Amitabha Sutras of Mahayana Buddhism.
Mahayana, meaning “Great Vehicle,” is known as the bodhisattva path. This path entails cultivating “perfections” and eliminating negativity for many lifetimes to reach full Buddhahood. This must manifest in the individual as a heartfelt desire to reach Buddhahood to help to free others from suffering. This yearning, based on compassion for others, becomes the motivation of the entire bodhisattva path.
Buddhism emerged as a reaction to Hinduism and its caste system. Buddhism was founded by Gautama Buddha, born in India in the fifth or sixth century B.C.E., who developed a spiritual path called the Noble Eightfold Path. This path leads to Awakening and Nirvana, a state of freedom from suffering. This path was available to everyone regardless of caste or gender. The original school of Buddhism that developed from his teachings was called Hinayana or “Lesser Vehicle,” and led to Arhatship, but does not lead to full Buddhahood as in the later Mahayana schools of thought.
The Mahayana sutras were written predominantly in Sanskrit between the first and eighth centuries. Zenji focuses on the two most important sutras, the Lotus Sutra, one of the most revered in East Asia, written around 200 C.E., the oldest devotional scripture and the Amitabha Sutra. As Donald Mitchell says in his book, Buddhism, the Lotus Sutra teaches that “all living beings have the innately pure Buddha-nature, which is none other than the Dharmakaya, the body of the Buddha itself. So, awakening can be attained by laypersons and monastics, men and women alike.” Prince Shotoku quoted the Dhammapada that outlines the path to enlightenment: “Avoid evil, undertake good, and purify the mind. This is the teaching of the Buddha.” (Mitchell 276, 7)
Zenji states that Buddhism is misunderstood by some as a godless religion. The Amitabha sutras speak of Amitabha Buddha, the god of endless light and life who created a “Pure Land” in the heavenly Buddha realm where all those who wish to be saved can be reborn there and live in a land of bliss where there is no sorrow. This land of bliss parallels the Christian God’s Kingdom of Heaven and promise of eternal life. Belief in Amitabha enables people to have hope in salvation in perilous times, just as Christians believe in Jesus as Saviour. Amitabha is seen as Lord of Heaven, Protector and Teacher. He is not viewed as a god to be feared. Zenji states that Amitabha was the first being to give salvation. He says that “there is no need for Christians to be threatened by what is in Buddhist scriptures.”
In closing, Zenji seeks to bring people the awareness that they must avoid taking elements from Buddhism’s tenets that suit their agendas. He revives Buddhism’s core doctrines by awakening the voices of his Brahmin ancestors through the sutras to keep the tradition alive. He says that “there should be a degree of truth brought back whenever we are teaching” and that “Buddhism must be given its rightful place.” Zenji affirms that Buddhism is the world’s first devotional religion; as such he seeks to bring devotion back to Buddhism.
After the presentation, the attendees engaged with Zenji in an animated question and answer period and stayed long afterward. IDI succeeded in offering a venue, a welcoming environment and a tasty luncheon conducive to encouraging open dialogue among people of differing religious and secular backgrounds.
by Suzanne Irwin
An excerpt from the speech, with permission from Zenji Acharya
Exploring Faiths: Greater Buddhism
“Mahayana – Religion of Japan, China & Tiger Nations of Asia”
Zenji Acharya has been praised in a UN report for giving an eloquent voice to the Buddhist traditions of Japan, China and the Tiger Asia nations and by the Indian Express as being the only expert in the world to hail from the oldest and most venerated Buddhist Brahmin lineage that comprised the greatest Buddhist leaders in history. Furthermore, he has also given more lectures on Buddhism than any other speaker in Canada and his connection to Japanese Buddhism goes back many centuries. The abbot of numerous Heritage Temples of National Importance, Zenji is the only modern-day expert from the highest lineage that included Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu (the first and second patriarchs of Jodo-Shinshu – Japan’s largest Buddhist sect); Kumarajiva (translator of both the Pure Land and Lotus Sutras that are the basis of East Asian Buddhism) and beloved icon Bodhidharma (founder of Zen Buddhism). Zenji’s lineage also included Bodhisena (Baramon Shojo) who painted the eyes of the Daibutsu of Japan; influenced the kathakana alphabet and introduced the widely-practiced tradition of wearing Juzus and Nenjus (Buddhist rosary). Zenji’s inspirational presentations have been praised by various world leaders, diplomats, faith leaders and a UN report and his ability to explain Buddhist concepts in a contemporary context that everyone can relate to in this day and age is exceptional and empowering. For more information please visit www.Zenji.org.
11:45am – Registration | 12:00pm – Lunch |
12:30pm – Speech & Q&A | 1:30pm – Closing